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Nationalism, Persecution and Repatriation of the Rohingya
By Kazi Fahmida Farzana — a social scientist, has been working with the Rohingya community since 2007. She is currently based at the University Utara Malaysia in Malaysia.
The incidents that took place in the Rakhine state (previously Arakan) of Burma/Myanmar in August 25 (2017) and the Myanmar governments’ actions and reactions on the Rohingya crisis, indicate the ugly face of Burmese nationalism. This behavior is the consequence of state centric policies that have generated refugees, created conflicts and produced a grave humanitarian situation. This version of extreme nationalism is carefully crafted by Myanmar’s regime and is historically rooted. The practice of extreme nationalism in Myanmar so far has been to benefit “Us” at the expense of “Others”. It has constructed and framed the Rohingya as the “Others”, therefore justifying their actions to eliminate “the existential threat” to the Burmese way of life and to the Burmese population. The military maintains strict control over government institutions. The quasi-civilian government is still following the footsteps of the military government that precisely failed to bring unity while it was on power for fifty years.
Since the independence of Burma, governments have been inconsistent in how they have dealt with the Rohingya Muslim Arakanese. The first constitution of the Union of Burma (September, 1947) had projected an all-inclusive policy. The declaration in the Constitution seems to unequivocally accept the people of the “Frontier Areas” as “The People of Burma”. By definition, the Rohingya Muslim Arakanese living in the frontier areas at that time did acquire constitutional recognition as legal citizens. Moreover, the Constitution made the citizenship criteria simpler and more explicit by stating (in Chapter II, Section 11) that those who were alive at the commencement of the Constitution, or those who were born in any of the British ruled territories included in the Union and who intended to stay there permanently, shall be considered citizens. There were times when Rohingya Muslim Arakanese participated and contributed to the political community just like other citizens of Myanmar. They participated in national election(s), had representatives and members in the parliament, had radio programmers broadcast in their own language. However, the political context changed drastically as General Ne Win came to power in a coup in 1962. Since then, its ethnic policy has been to forcibly assimilate various groups into one unified Burmese identity. It utilized coercive practices to secure its borders, population, and political authority. The military government perceived the Rohingya to be collaborators with the British enemy, and since it was the British who brought large numbers of Indian labourers to Arakan, the Rohingya were not deemed compatible with the push to promote a sense of national solidarity. Moreover, because of their religion (Islam) and skin color that differed from the majority religion (Buddhism), it was easy for government officials to view and represent them as ‘Others’. The military junta used the clause of the 1947 Constitution (Chapter II, Section 12) that stated that, if necessary, Parliament has the authority to make any changes with regard to citizenship laws. Subsequent transformation was done through official revocation (constitutional change). The new Constitution and the Burma Citizenship Law (1982) officially recognized 135 distinctive ‘ethnic nationalities’, but rejected the ethnic Rohingya. This denationalization process made them non-citizens of Myanmar, and slowly removed them from the rights, duties, and obligations of citizenship.
This practice and mentality remain in the current military backed quasi-civilian government. For instance, in the past, Rohingya were uprooted from their original lands, and fled from their home several times. This can be witnessed in 1978 during the Operation Nagamin (Dragon King) that made more than 200,000 Rohingya refugees and in 1991 during the Pyi Thaya (Prosperous Country) operation where approximately 270,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh. In the present, the brutality of the current government towards the Rohingya is unprecedented. This time around the quasi-civilian government appears to be very successful in systematic ethnic purification or “ethnic cleansing” in the Rakhine state, by making the state Rohingya free. Since August 2017, it produced approximately 700,000 new refugees in Bangladesh, leaving behind only less than 500,000 Rohingya in the Rakhine state. People are again fleeing to save their lives from torture, mass killing, gang rape, burning bodies alive, forceful detention and other grave human rights violations by the military and other security and non-security forces in Myanmar. ##